By Neil S. Borg
The year is 1941. Nathan Bujor walks through an open-air market in Caubiac, France.
Turning, he finds an old army friend, Lucien Thulau, approaching. “Nathan!” Lucien says, “How are you?”
“Worried,” Nathan replies. “Very worried. I don’t know what we are going to do.”
Nathan was my grandfather. As a young man, he served in the French military and then earned an engineering degree at the University of Toulouse. In the 1930s, he works at the Renault Auto Factory. My mother Reine, his only child, is born in Toulouse in March of 1933.
By 1940, the Nazi menace has invaded and become a threat to every Jewish community in Europe. Nathan and my grandmother Nina are desperate to protect themselves and their daughter. They decide their best chance is to hide.
Nathan finds a convent willing to hide Reine. For nearly a year, Reine lives in the convent, sleeps in a dormitory, attends mass, wears a crucifix, and prays three times a day. She thinks the food is awful, she is lonely, and she misses her parents terribly.
Now, in 1941, rumors are spreading that the SS are aware of Jewish children being hidden in convents. As soon as they hear this, Nathan and Nina pull Reine out of the convent.
In the market, Nathan tells Lucien he is terrified of what will happen. He needs a place to hide his family.
Without hesitation, Lucien offers his nearby farmhouse as a safe haven for as long as needed. “We already have three daughters,” he says. “Eight-year-old Reine will blend right in.”
The next weekend, deep in the night, hidden by the darkness, Nathan and Nina ride bicycles, with Reine in a sidecar, to the Thulau farmhouse.
Lucien and his wife, Marie-Angèle, instruct their daughters to speak of Reine in the community as if she were a sister. Reine is enrolled in school under the Thulau name. Madame Thulau arranges for her to receive her First Communion like the other children so as not to raise suspicion, despite the priest knowing that she is Jewish.
Reine spends several years hidden on that farm. Those years are happy times. She enjoys the routines of farm life: collecting eggs, tending the garden, and milking the cows. Reine feels the warmth of a loving home but she is lonely, spending so much time away from her parents whom she loves dearly.
She attends school in a one-room schoolhouse and makes good friends. There is one schoolmate, Nicole, with whom she forms an especially close bond. Nicole and Reine become the best of friends. During Reine’s time in Caubiac, they go to school together and play in the church courtyard. When Reine eventually leaves Caubiac at the end of the war, her parents make sure that she does NOT see Nicole before leaving, for fear that the goodbye will be too painful.
The pain of war does not hit Reine until it is nearly over. Near the end of the war, as the Nazis retreat from the French countryside, her father Nathan becomes sick. There is no medicine and no doctors willing to help a Jewish man. Reine sits at Nathan’s bedside. She feels helpless as he dies. Nina is devastated.
Shortly after Nathan dies and the war ends, Nina books passage to Cuba. Nina and Reine board a ship to leave Europe. Reine suffers through rough waters and bad food. She misses her father. She and Nina befriend another woman on the ship, but the woman becomes sick and does not survive the voyage. Reine witnesses the burial at sea: the woman wrapped in a shroud and laid on a plank, the captain’s blessing, and the sailors tipping the body off the plank. She hears the splash when the body of their friend hits the water. She will remember this.
Reine and Nina are very unhappy in Cuba. Nina is depressed, alone, and lost without Nathan. Reine is teased by the children at school because she is different and because she speaks no Spanish.
After a year in Cuba, a relative in Chicago agrees to sponsor them in the US. Again, in the US, Reine finds herself in a classroom where she can’t speak the language and is teased by the other children. It takes time, but she catches up and graduates with her age-mates in 1951 from John Marshall High School in Chicago.
Now it is 1995. Reine is working at the JUF (Jewish United Fund) in Chicago. Her co-workers urge her to give testimony to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project. She agrees, and for the first time I hear the entire story, including the names and places of her childhood.
Based upon the Shoah testimony, we are able to locate the Thulau family. It is 2014. Madame Thulau is 99 years old and still living in Caubiac. My mother passed away in 2010 but my family wants to recognize the Thulaus’ willingness to help the Bujor family. We contact Yad Vashem in Israel, as well as to the government of France. The Shoah Project video is sufficient documentation for Yad Vashem to recognize Madame Thulau and her late husband, Lucien, as Righteous Among the Nations. The French government awards Madame Thulau the Legion D’ Honor, the highest civilian award in France. I attend the ceremony with my sons, Elliot and Andrew, and my fiancé, Ilene Redwood.
In Toulouse, a driver brings us to the country house where my mother was hidden. The driver stops short of the house and suggests we walk the last 100 yards. As we approach the house, we see a group of people waiting for us. The group includes a film crew from the local Toulouse TV station.
As we get near, an older woman approaches, and I recognize her face. It is Nicole! When I first meet Nicole Serniguet, she puts her hands on my face. With tears in her eyes, she says “I have not seen this face in so many years! Looking at your face is like looking at your beautiful mother.” I can hardly speak as tears roll down both our cheeks.
Our driver then takes us to the award ceremony in Toulouse. Before the ceremony starts, we eat lunch in the town square adjacent the city hall. The square is beautiful with a market, benches, and restaurants. As we sit there, though, I wonder: “Was this where the Nazis ordered the Jews to assemble? Were my people sent to death camps from this square?”
Entering the Toulouse City Hall, I am in awe of this 800-year-old building. Every inch of the walls and ceilings are covered by hand-painted frescos. It reminds me of the Sistine Chapel. It is in this beautiful setting where I first meet Madame Thulau and her daughters.
Madame Thulau sits in her wheelchair. I approach her. I kneel in front of her. I tell her, “This moment will be etched forever in my memory. Meeting you and your family is one of the best experiences of my life. Not only did your family make my life possible, but you made the lives of my children possible.”
“When I saw your mother,” Madame Thulau responds, “I did not see a Jewish girl. I saw only a little girl who needed a home.” We cry together.
There are 200 people attending this event. I am seated in the first row near the center aisle. Madame Thulau is seated in the first row on the other side of the aisle. As the ceremony begins, I reach my hand toward her. We hold hands across the aisle for most of the ceremony.
I am called to the dais to speak. “Madame Thulau,” I say, “my parents’ generation thank you for the risks you took. My generation and my children’s generation also thank you. The Jewish people call this lador vador: from generation to generation. Your actions will not be forgotten.”
We take more photographs. We cry more tears.
We return to Caubiac, where my mother hid during the war. Together, Madame Thulau and I cut a ribbon, unveiling a monument in front of the Church that commemorates the actions of the Thulau family. Finally, we have a few minutes of quiet time.
The Thulau family and my family sit together in a circle. Madame Thulau recalls a time when she and Reine were not at home and the Nazis came onto the farm to search for guns and food. Had the murdering soldiers come half an hour later, when my mother had returned to the farm, I might not be writing today.
I had struggled with the idea of a gift for the Thulau family. What would I give to a woman who was partly responsible for giving me a chance at life more than 20 years before I was born? With her daughters at her side, Madame Thulau opens the gift. She gently pulls out the crystal angel I had selected for her. I see the love on their faces. The look on their faces will forever be etched in my memory.
Madame Thulau tells us, “My only regret is that I am not able to welcome you into my home.” My son responds, “I think you’ve done enough for our family!” She looks at my son, “That was for your grandmother. I only wish I could do the same for you.”
Madam Thulau passed away in 2018.
We made the 10’oclock news in Toulouse:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESRcCZu_rFU&t=25s or search for France3 Reine’s 10 o’clock Cubiac.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzsMqkLD3LA&t=337s or search Reine Cubiac Interviews